‘Tis the season for office holiday parties which, unfortunately, are often fraught with labor and employment issues. A wild office party akin to a “Mad Men”-esque soirée may have unfortunate legal consequences for an employer including claims of harassment, discrimination, negligence and other torts. The following tips will help you reduce potential legal risks and ensure that you are set for holiday cheer.
Honesty is the best policy. Make sure your employees know your workplace substance abuse policy and that the policy addresses the use of alcoholic beverages in any work-related situations and office social functions. Use every communications vehicle to make sure your employees know the policy. Prior to an office party, use break room bulletin boards, office e-mail, and paycheck envelopes to communicate your policy and concerns.
Reinvent the office party concept. Why have the typical office party? Try something new like an indoor carnival, group outing to an amusement park, or volunteer activity with a local charity. Have the party off-site, not at the office. Have a lunch or late afternoon cocktail party instead of a night-time dinner party. It is much easier to cut-off alcohol consumption and end the party when it is held at a hotel or restaurant setting. The hotel manager can be the bad guy, ending the party, not the co-worker or boss.
Invite spouses. The simple way to make everyone behave sensibly is to have a spouse looking over your shoulder.
Make sure employees know when to say when. If you do serve alcohol at an office event, make sure all employees know that they are welcome to attend and have a good time, but that they are expected to act maturely.
Designate responsible party managers. Remind managers that even at the office party, they have responsibilities for implementing the company’s alcohol and substance abuse policy. No one should be served who is visibly intoxicated. Everyone should have fun, not act irresponsibly. Managers should stay until the last employee has safely left to travel home.
Alternative transportation. Anticipate the need for alternative transportation both to and from the party for all party goers and make special transportation arrangements in advance of the party. Encourage all employees to make use of the alternative transportation if they have any alcohol. Designated drivers, taxicabs, party buses and other means must be used to guarantee safe transit home.
None for the road. Employers can be responsible for car accidents on the way home from the party. Make sure there are plenty of alternative, non-alcoholic beverages available. At least one hour before the party officially ends, stop serving alcohol and remove all alcoholic beverages. Avoid serving lots of salty, greasy or sweet foods which tend to make people thirsty. Serve foods rich in starch and protein which stay in the stomach longer and slow the absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream.
Avoid Sleepovers. Have a designated start and end time for the party and encourage everyone to leave and go home when it is over. You need to cutoff the point in time when the employer has liability for what happens. Encouraging sleepovers is just asking for sexual harassment complaints.
(Adapted from a list previously compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Working Partners for an Alcohol and Drug-Free Workplace).